Sunday, November 8, 2009

On the Rebound

I apologize, but I have to start this post out on a sad note.  After a fantastic seven-year run as my all-time favorite Italian restaurant, Merlo on Lincoln and I have broken up.  No, neither of us did anything wrong per se, but its just that we have grown apart.  Although there were persistent rumors for the past couple years that they were planning on changing the concept of the restaurant from perfection to something less than perfection, it always seemed as if it would never happened.  I mean, seriously, why would you mess with perfection let alone willingly give it up?  Gone are the wonderful memories of tagliatelle with white truffle oil an veal ragu, spinach lasagna with a bechamel sauce, artichoke tort, and prosciutto-wrapped buffalo mozzarella.  I realize that I can get all these dishes at Merlo on Maple, but the atmosphere there is so much less welcoming and relaxing.  Today is a sad day that I will not soon forget.  Goodbye sweet Merlo, we had some great times.

Fresh on the open market, I was looking for a quick fling to replace the hole in my heart that Merlo left.  I found my rebound with a sexy little place called Custom House.  Custom House is located at 500 S. Dearborn and its website is  Custom House is Chef Shawn McClain's meat-focused restaurant in his Chicago restaurant empire (Spring (fish), Green Zebra (vegetarian)).  We did find out that Chef McClain is giving up the reins of Custom House to focus on a new restaurant he is opening in Vegas.  Nevertheless, tonight, as always was a tremendous effort by this great restaurant.

Upon arriving in the lobby of the restaurant, we were quickly whisked away to our table in the middle of the dimly lit, modern dining room.  A friendly waiter named Eric brought us our menus and the wine list and explained the special of the evening (pork chop, sunchoke puree, pork reduction).

We discussed some options for wine before we decided to settle on a half-bottle of 2005 Bordeaux.  The wine was very good with hints of black currant and some earthiness that would go well with pork.  The only problem with this wine was that it took the better part of an hour to even begin to open up.  When you are opening a bottle for dinner, that amount of time is seldom a luxury that you have.

As I viewed the menu, some difficult choices presented themselves.  There were four dishes that sounded absolutely tremendous, and many more that would have made fantastic substitutes.  I was mainly torn between the pork special mentioned above, the pork shoulder canneloni with shiitake mushroom puree, rabbit with bacon, and scallops with bacon vinegarette (as you can see, I love bacon).  Although a out of character for me, I settled for a non-bacon related dish, the pork shoulder canneloni.  Michelle ended up ordering the chicken under a brick with black truffle potatoes.  We also decided, in an homage to Merlo, to order the prosciutto and mozzarella as an appetizer.

The prosciutto came out served with sliced radishes, shallots, and basil.  The buffalo mozzarella was melted over a piece of bread.  The prosciutto was wonderfully salty as it should be, but I was a bit confused by the bread underneat the melted cheese.  I feel like they could have done better just wrapping some lightly warmed balls of cheese with the prosciutto, but maybe I was just reminiscing about the wonderful ex-Merlo dish.  Beyond my minor quibble with the bread, I thought this was a nicely executed, simple appetizer.

A few minutes after the appetizer was cleared, our main dishes came out.  My dish had some sort of large swirly looking thing on top, which turned out to be a chile pork rind.  The pork shoulder was very moist and had an extreme pork flavor, so it was very tasty.  There were some chile flakes to add a touch of spice.  Finally, the shiitake mushroom puree served to frame the immense flavor of the braised pork shoulder.  Without the puree, the pork flavor would be unrestrained, and I would have gotten bored eating it.  However, the mushrooms added an earthy element that was a baseline for the pork.  All said, it was a very nicely rounded dish that was interesting to eat throughout.

The chicken under the brick was also a phenomenal effort.  As you probably know, chicken is extremely easy to dry out while cooking, particularly while grilling.  However, this chicken was very moist throughout, but it had a beautifully crisp skin to contrast the moist meat.  The spinach and potatos were ripe with black truffle flavor, thus they were extremely scrumptious.  This was one of the best, if not the best, chicken that I have ever had.

These dishes were extremely filling, so we opted to share one dessert.  There are some extremely strange-sounding, but probably wonderful desserts on the menu.  Chief among these was the foie gras pot de creme with pickled grapes.  I've had a foie gras creme brulee before, but that was served as a side dish to another savory course.  I couldn't comprehend how this could be a dessert.  I was not about to head down this alley since we were only getting one dessert, but the waiter assured me that it does work well as a dessert.  Rather, we settled on "Smores."  This dessert consisted of a graham cracker tuile filled with chocolate custard.  On the side was melted marshmallow and a pile of bacon powder.  Did you really think I could go a whole meal without eating some bacon?  The custard was extremely chocolatey and dense.  The bitterness from the chocolate was offset by the subtle flavor of the graham cracker tuile.  The crisp tuile also contrasted the texture of the custard.  While it would seem that simply adding marshmallows would complete the smore concept, Custom House took it a step farther.  The bacon powder was not there just for the sake of adding bacon (although I would have been fine with that), rather it was necessary to add a smoky element that smores get from the campfire.  Even more elementary, it added a contrast of saltiness to the intense sweetness of every other element.  For any of you have eaten Doritos and bananas or cookies and pretzels together, you know how powerful the sweet-salty connection is.
Custom House was an excellent meal and made for an awesome escape from my article.  Even more importantly, it may have replaced my ex, Merlo on Lincoln.  Perhaps if she changes back to her old ways we can reconcile, but that does not look promising right now.  Give Custom House a shot and let me know what you think!

1 comment:

  1. I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about this place and its lunch menu. I went to Custom House about 2 years ago for lunch, and I had some sort of chicken sandwich, which was rather unimpressive. I've never been there for dinner, and perhaps I shouldn't judge this place based on one lunch. If you get a chance I'd like to hear what you and your refined palate have to say about this place's lunch menu. Perhaps it was an off day for the restaurant when I went.